It was about five minutes into Romeo and Juliet—on day three of a four-day, four-play binge I was doing at Intiman Theatre—that my shoulders relaxed and I thought, Intiman is back. Broadway veteran Allen Fitzpatrick had appeared on stage like the Ghost of Terrible Things to Come, shrouded in a black hooded sweatshirt, alone before a microphone. As he began the familiar prologue (Two households, both alike in dignity…), his voice echoed ominously around the theater, with Montagues and Capulets whispering in the wings, and possibly from the grave. It gave me the chills: this foreboding introduction of tragedy to come, whose ending I already knew, yet somehow felt unpredictable.
This moment came to symbolize the entire run of shows at Intiman— Dirty Story, Hedda Gabler, Romeo and Juliet, Miracle! Intiman’s story could have been its own little predictable tragedy: A Tony-winning regional theater spends too big and faces financial collapse. But instead, it’s full of surprises. First, Intiman reforms as a repertory company of 17 actors. Then, it delivers two classics with innovative twists, a challenging/disturbing satire in a new studio space, and a drag parody of The Miracle Worker that’s actually hilarious (as one patron put it: “against all odds”).
Here’s what Intiman did well: It managed to keep the quality high despite limited funds, thanks to a truly talented cast of locals—some Broadway veterans, some people I’d never seen on a Seattle stage—and a savvy creative team. Kudos to scenic designer Jennifer Zeyl and director Allison Narver, whose collaboration on Romeo and Juliet created a stark urban marketplace that could have been anywhere from the West Bank to Queens; where rival families battle with baseball bats and swords, and people honor the dead by pinning their photos onto their starched white clothing. The latter is a smart visual effect by costume designer Deb Trout that hammers home how many losses the elder Montagues and Capulets have already suffered. It’s the little touches, the attention to detail, that lifted this production to the next level.
Romeo and Juliet was also a showcase for most of the Intiman repertory: notably Quinn Franzen as Romeo, who’s been with the Satori Group and has deserved a bigger stage; fair of face Michael Place, cofounder of Washington Ensemble Theatre, as the manic Mercutio; and Marya Sea Kaminski as a gap-toothed Nurse. Speaking of Kaminski: She’s outstanding as narcissistic, self-destructive Hedda Gabler. She can do much with a false smile—and even more with subtle dance moves, the inspiration of director Andrew Russell and choreographer Olivier Wevers. Her animal instinct seems to want to take over when she’s confronted with housewife malaise; an arm twitches, a hand starts to walk itself across the table. She even dances herself to death.
While Hedda Gabler had subtle updates, John Patrick Shanley’s Dirty Story drowned in allegory. The 2003 political "comedy" is rough theater, with an opening act featuring a couple dabbling in S&M that teeters scarily close to rape. By Act 2, the fledgling relationship stands for a certain never-ending conflict between two countries; the metaphor is as heavy-handed as the seats in the studio space are stiff. It wasn’t my favorite.
And what of Miracle!, the Dan Savage–penned drag show that turns Helen Keller into deaf, blind wannabe queen Helen Stellar? It’s just as Intiman promised: offensive, crass, but with heart. Savage stages the familiar story of The Miracle Worker in a 1990s drag bar in Seattle—a nod to the days when he used to direct drag versions of Macbeth and more at Re-bar. He has a much bigger stage now, a classically Greek theater that he says is fit for…well, classically Greek gay sex. The play is rated NC-17 “due to simulated sexual acts, graphic language, and fabulous drag performances," and its most outrageous moment (involving a stool) sent two people running for the door. That left a still-packed theater with young and old, gay and straight, guffawing at stage veteran/Cornish professor Timothy McCuen Piggee in a leopard print bodysuit lip-syncing to Chaka Khan; or at sweet Jonathon Pyburn as Helen Stellar, having her breakthrough moment with "Vodka! Vodka!" instead of "Water!" at the well. Sure, we were laughing at the expense of half a dozen minority groups, but the message—to accept people for who they are, to support your child—was more important than the medium.
Welcome back, Intiman. It’s good to see you.
Intiman Theatre Festival
Thru Aug 26, Intiman Playhouse, $30